How global warming threatens the future of the Winter Olympics

It wasn’t just the huge chunks of ice breaking off, falling apart. New waterfalls appeared, tumbling from the surrounding cliffs as if the frozen terrain was melting.

Ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympics, America’s top skiers and snowboarders headed to the Swiss Alps in early fall, gathering in the village of Saas-Fee for year-round training. on the ice and snow of an adjacent glacier.

This time was different from previous camps.

“Definitely a weird thing at play,” said snowboarder Red Gerard, the reigning men’s slopestyle gold medalist.

Her teammate Jamie Anderson, a two-time Olympic women’s slopestyle champion, called it “pure physical testimony to the seriousness of climate change”.

American athletes heading to Beijing might not be formally educated in climatology or aware of all the relevant political arguments. Their concerns might not compare to widespread heat waves, droughts and floods. But they have an on-the-ground view of climate trends and can see first-hand the impact of global warming.

A recent Canadian study predicted that, by the end of the century, nine of the last 21 Winter Olympic cities may not be cold enough to reliably host downhill races, biathlons or halfpipe competitions. . The list includes Palisades Tahoe (formerly Squaw Valley) and Vancouver.

Elite competitors say they are already dealing with shorter winter seasons and deteriorating conditions on the international circuit.

“We’ve definitely had challenges over the past two years,” said aerial skier Winter Vinecki. “We went to sites, and normally we would have snow, but it is raining. And then there were days when we were jumping on the snow in the pouring rain.

Like other hosts, Beijing will stage a split Winter Games, with indoor events such as figure skating, speed skating, ice hockey and curling played in urban arenas and snow sports taking place in remote mountainous areas.

Although forecasts predict a cold winter for China, high-altitude sites in the Yanqing and Zhangjiakou regions are not expected to receive much rainfall. Chinese authorities have launched a campaign to cover ski slopes and courses with artificial snow.

Artificial cover has played a role in previous Winter Olympics. The recent Paralympic Games in South Korea and Russia experienced unusually hot weather.

Anna Hoffman trains at the U.S. Olympic Ski Jumping Complex in Lake Placid, NY on December 23.

(Dustin Satloff/Getty Images)

“Pyeongchang was in the mid-1960s [degrees] less than 70,” said Keith Gabel, an American Paralympic snowboarder. “Same as Sochi, and it’s not necessarily winter conditions.”

The International Olympic Committee deserves the blame for choosing weather-doubtful hosts. But this 2018 Canadian study, conducted by researchers at the University of Waterloo, isn’t the only warning that natural snow may be getting harder to find.

Earlier this month, calculations from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put 2021 among the six warmest years on record, extending an eight-year stretch of record high temperatures. Despite annual fluctuations, overall global temperatures have increased by 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.1 degrees Celsius, since pre-industrial times.

Scientists have repeatedly said that fossil fuel emissions are to blame and that the effects will worsen globally if temperature increases exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“There are already changes in the patterns of snowfall and precipitation, snow versus rain,” says Twila Moon, a researcher at the National Snow & Ice Data Center in Colorado. “These changes have been observed very widely across the world.”

Climate change has made alpine and Nordic skiing increasingly dependent on technology.

Race organizers are good at blowing artificial snow and “growing” the real thing, storing it under cover and then moving it around to fill in bare spots, but artificial surfaces aren’t quite the same. Halfpipes are firmer and less forgiving when snowboarders fade. Water-injected downspouts, a hardening procedure that makes them weatherproof, can be icier, faster and riskier at high speeds.

“I think we always have to face whatever is thrown at us and adapt,” said American skier Ryan Cochran-Siegle.

Snowboarders practice in the beginner's area at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Zhangjiakou, China in December.

Snowboarders practice in the beginner’s area at Thaiwoo Ski Resort in Zhangjiakou, China in December.

(Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Cross-country and biathlon events – the winter version of the grueling marathon – have also been affected. They require less cover but are held at lower elevations, making them vulnerable to snow lines receding up the mountain. There were whispers of climbing in more snow. And more rarefied air.

“Elevation is a very sensitive subject for many Nordic athletes,” said US Paralympian Jake Adicoff. “It wouldn’t be good to climb another 2,000 feet from here and run it would be, I don’t know, just not ideal.”

Biathlete Clare Egan says “the altitude limit exists for a safety reason, as far as I know, is that it can be so stressful on the body past a certain limit that it’s not safe” .

Looking to the future, current Olympians wonder if the next generation will have enough snow to develop their skills. There are concerns about the viability of recreational skiing because local resorts do not always have the same level of snowmaking available to top competitors.

“I think it’s something a lot of people who spend time outdoors can relate to,” said scientist Moon. “We can feel these influences from drought, wildfires and changes in waterways. Here in Montana, it’s hunting and fishing.

Some members of the US team were motivated to take personal action.

Freestyle skier Maggie Voisin encourages people to recycle and sign petitions in support of environmental legislation. As a two-time Olympian in biathlon, Susan Dunklee spent the money from a silver medal at the world championships to install solar panels on her house. She has just bought an electric vehicle.

“It’s easy to get discouraged when you think about the whole issue of climate change,” Dunklee said. “But when you look at sports, you see underdogs doing amazing things all the time…and we, as individuals in a global community, may be underdogs in this fight, but we have to keep going. to fight and keep believing.”

A view of the Shougang Big Air site at night.

A view of the Shougang Big Air venue, which will host the big air freestyle skiing and snowboarding competitions at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

(Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

Thoughts about global warming will likely fade as the competition begins in Beijing, with the focus on gold medal performances. Large turbines resembling yellow jet engines – computer-controlled to turn on and off depending on weather conditions – have been spraying artificial snow at Olympic venues for weeks.

“I have confidence that China is going to take this very seriously and have a lot of snow there,” said Paralympic skier Andrew Kurka. “That way there won’t be any pebbles or anything else on the course.”

Yet adapting to climate change is now part of the game. Winter sports athletes know they face an uncertain future, a point highlighted by their training camp in Switzerland.

“In Saas-Fee, on the glacier, you can see a huge difference to how it looks today compared to even five years ago,” said slopestyle skier Alex Hall. “There’s a lot of melting going on.”

Teresa H. Sadler